One Sibling Way Nicer than the other...let Them Sort It Out?

Updated on September 14, 2017
J.B. asks from Boston, MA
11 answers

Probably something I'm over-thinking but here goes...my two youngest sons are 11 and 13, 6th and 8th grade. They are now on the same schedule. DS11 likes his days to run smoothly and has the ability to plan ahead and make that happen. Part of having a pleasant morning for him is to not have DS13 crash start the day as he tends to do - oversleeps, very cranky, yells and snaps at people, running out the door to the bus, etc. DS13 has ADHD and executive functioning issues and his mornings can be combative and stressful.

DS11 gets up earlier and does sweet things for his brother to ease him into his day...makes him a mug of tea while he makes his own, will bring his medication up to him in bed if he's heading back up for something anyway, will make toast if he's doing some for himself, etc. I'm cooking breakfast or packing lunches while this is happening. DS13 really does love this attention and help and will say thank you to us, etc. It is nice to have a calm start to the day, but he now has two people covering his morning tasks to get him on his way. It seems borderline dysfunctional - here we are, catering to our monster so that he doesn't ruin our morning.

DS11 is also helpful at and after school. He helps him organize his locker from time to time, organized all of his school supplies for him and helps him sort his backpack after school. DS13 doesn't ask for this help, but gladly accepts it. DS11 enjoys this stuff and it's a strength for him.

I have two issues: 1) DS13 does nothing in return to help DS11. He's nicer to him than he used to be, but that should be the baseline expectation for family behavior. We've talked about how much he enjoys DS11's help and that perhaps he could express his gratitude by doing something kind in return. I don't want to make helping each other transactional, but there should be a bit of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours," right? 2) I cringe because this reminds me of me and my ex. I definitely may be reading to much into this, but I am a people-pleaser who tries to make life easier for other people and their dad is a taker, taker, taker whose mercurial moods and disorganization leave everyone else walking on eggshells.

So...do I let this sort itself out (perhaps DS13 thinks of ways to be helpful and kind to DS11, or not)? Push DS13 to find something concrete to do for his brother? Remind DS11 that kindness and thoughtfulness are great but that he's not responsible for his brother's mood and organization? Not say anything it all and enjoy it while it lasts?

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H.M.

answers from Dallas on

If 11 year old is doing this without being asked let him. He has a heart for giving and helping don't take that away. He sounds like a sweetheart! My youngest 15 sometimes still needs so help getting started and motivate in the mornings.

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M.6.

answers from New York on

I totally get where you are coming from. And in the immediate, probably not a huge issue. However, I would be concerned about the future - when it becomes less of a choice and more of a survival technique. I've dealt with this in a bit different fashion as we have one child who was truly out of control and needed 24 hr awake supervision, which affected all the other children in the house. After awhile, they became resentful of the situation and also of me to some degree, for not somehow stopping it (as adults, they now realize that I had no choice but to deal until we could get him in a out of home care in a facility, which took a number of years). In your case, it also sounds like you have concerns that you and your ex may have modeled some of this behavior - and honestly kids like the devil they know - recreating an emotional environment that is comfortable for them is going to be natural.

I think rather than being concerned about DS13 not "returning" the favor, I would focus more on the fact that DS13 is basically getting no usable skills to manage his own life. He not only isn't taking care of his own morning routine, he has folks tiptoeing around him in order to create a certain environment. I don't think that is doing DS13 any favors and kids like DS13 learn from natural consequences far better than imposed ones, and your and DS11 behaviors are not allowing those natural consequences to happen (i.e., don't wake up in time means no breakfast, etc)

The long term effects of walking on eggshells I think will have negative effects for DS11 as well. How long before the anxiety starts when what DS11 does is no longer working for DS13? Kids like DS11 tend to take that personally and really internalize that as a "rejection". (obviously I don't know your son, and is totally generalizing based on my own experience).

I think that I would have a discussion with DS13 about his needing to take on some of his own responsibilities and the stepping away from managing his morning so closely. My discussion with DS11 would center on choosing one thing each morning he would like to do for his brother (who wouldn't want to foster that kind of niceness!) but that his brother does need to learn how to do things for himself. I would also see about finding another outlet for his need to care for people - like volunteering or something like that.

Finally, if DS11 really thrives on calm mornings (and who doesn't love that), and DS13 needs to be the "morning monster" then I think I would find a way to get DS11 out of the house in the morning first. My kids did early morning activities at school and I sent one kid to daycare before waking our troubled child whenever we could in order to allow them the start to the day they deserved.

Good luck!

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M.G.

answers from Portland on

I can relate to this in a few different ways.

One - if you take the ADHD/incident from last year/you and your ex out of this - it is very common for younger siblings (I know, I was one) to want to please their older siblings. Myself and a lot of my 'youngest' friends, all did this. Part of it was wanting to be accepted by older siblings (and included) and part of it can be nature. My youngest definitely did this for the rest - and when none of them ever gave back, I kind of redirected her. There was a question on here not too long ago about one kid taking advantage of the other (I think it was pay me so that I will have a sleepover with you...) so some of this is typical - everything else taken out.

So how would you deal with that, if that was just the case? Go from there.

The trying to make life easier for kid who tends to blow up - been there too (thankfully, short period). Stressed people in a family are not fun. Some of us are like sponges, and find that very hard to be around. So - if your son has that nature (if he's inherited it from you) then I get it - you kind of want to make him realize, his brother's moods are not his concern.

As far as your older son (13) just enjoying it to a certain degree - well, I don't see anything wrong with that except that he's not learning how to manage himself.

So I think a little intervention here is good - probably, since you're concerned - trust your gut.

I agree - it does no one anyone favors to all cater to the explosive one.

If it were me - I'd just have a quick chat with your youngest one about why he's doing it. If it's just to be kind - and he'd do the same for anyone else in your family - that's cool. If he's doing it so that life in the mornings goes more easily for him also - then nope. He should focus on himself and doing kind things to help himself ease into the day. Say you think that's admirable but he's not responsible for his brother.

Hope that helps - I too notice that our kids have both our strengths and our weaknesses, and knowing how to parent so that they are their most peaceful and healthiest - sometimes challenging!

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D.D.

answers from Boston on

I'd stay out of it. Nice that your son is so kind to his brother. He must be getting some sort of satisfaction from doing this so let it be.

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A.D.

answers from Minneapolis on

I think you should say nothing and let them sort it out. It sounds like your younger enjoys helping his brother, for now. That may change at some point, and that's OK too. If the 11 year old eventually gets busy with his own priorities or gets on a difference schedule, or just grows resentful, your older will have to accept it and adjust. Maybe the older brother being nicer to the younger is all the payback the younger needs right now, he's getting a closer relationship with his brother. It may be years down road, but there will come a time when your older will have the opportunity and hopeful step-up to help out his younger brother. I doubt he'll be wanting to help him organize his room or things, but he may be there for him in other ways such as attending his sports games, cheering him on, or something else that comes easier to a kid with ADHD. I wouldn't try to push for it now, or come up with ideas yourself for him to do something nice for his brother. It wouldn't be as sincere or meaningful if it's not his own thought, and he's just doing what his mom is telling him to do. You've planted the seed, that is good. If your 13 year old is having or has had a bad morning, or incident, or you start to feel like you're having a walking on eggshells morning, I do think it is good to remind your younger son that he is not responsible for managing his brother's mood. Only his brother can decide upon and control his own actions, emotions and attitudes to the best of his ability.

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C.C.

answers from New York on

It was around this time last year that you posted that the younger one had threatened the older one with a steak knife to get him out of bed!!

And now one year later he is making tea....

As everyone said a year ago, keeping everyone in a situation of *stability* (maybe with family therapy) can be a very important tool. Because the pendulum swings both ways. The mornings sound great now, but maybe you should simply encourage DS11 to focus on *himself* more than he does.

My concern is just that DS11, at his young age, could one day be having a bad/hormonal day and get upset about feeling "taken advantage of", which could lead to another knife-type incident.

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B.C.

answers from Norfolk on

Why are you letting your 11 yr old parent your 13 yr old?
Isn't that your job?

My younger sister and I were (and are) as different as day and night.
Our street had a bus run that was a loop-de-loop (it came past our stop twice).
I always caught it on the first pass - and had a seat.
My sister caught it on the 2nd pass - and stood up because there was no room left on the bus.
No I didn't save her a seat - the bus was crowded and I sat with friends.
If/when she rarely caught the bus the first time around then she could get her own seat.

Your 13 yr old could be nicer - but if it's forced then it's not coming naturally.
He needs to figure his own way here.
An absence of 'nasty' is desirable.

Your 11 yr old sounds very thoughtful and rather mature for his age - but he needs to back off his older brother - and I never heard of any sibling making tea for another.
When there's no reciprocation - he needs to find someone else who WILL reciprocate - and that's not his brother.

Growing up with my sister - we established a few periods of detente where there were no open hostilities.
And that was as peaceful as it got.
The rest of the time it was knock-down-pulling-hair brawls.

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T.S.

answers from San Francisco on

Oh boy, I am all too familiar with this.
My middle child (now 21!) has always been a pill. Her older brother pretty much ignored her behavior, but my younger daughter (now 18) went through periods of serious love/hate with her sister. I struggled as a parent along the way because I just couldn't understand how very different these personalities could be when they came from the same DNA and were raised in the same home.
In hindsight, I will say that I'm glad I never really forced either of them to change. Of course I wished that my older daughter could have been more sensitive, and there were times when I felt my youngest was sensitive to the point of being a doormat. But really they have grown into two very unique people who have their own strengths and weaknesses. And because they no longer live together they are much more forgiving of each other.
I realize you're in the throes of teenage hell and it seems like it will never end but it will, so hang in there as best you can! Praise acts of kindness and every now and again remind your 13 year old that he's only got one little brother and maybe he should appreciate him and his loving attitude while he's still got it.

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D.B.

answers from Boston on

i guess I'm somewhere in the middle. I am an over-thinking in many ways, so maybe some of that is going on. But you're also wise, in my opinion, to see possible patterns from your marriage playing out in the kids. DS11 is mini-you, DS13 is mini-dad. You walked on eggshells trying to avoid your ex's outbursts, and DS11 is doing the same thing. It will work out for your son the way it worked out for you.

I think there's some value to people doing work when it's not exactly equal, as long as it's equivalent. For example, household tasks don't have to be split right down the middle, with each person doing half the dishwashing and each doing half the lawnmowing. I kind of like doing dishes so I tell my husband I'll do them. But he readily takes on all the laundry, so it works out. In your case, I think there's a degree of accommodating that can be done in the face of a disability (ADD & executive functioning), within reason. If there's a certain amount of helping out when DS13 is late and chaotic in the morning, that's one thing. But DS13 isn't doing anything to help at 3 PM or 8 PM or the weekends either, so there's a very basic inequality and borderline exploitation going on with DS11. That's a bad pattern for both kids. As DS13 gets more and more into the moods of teenage, his sense of entitlement is likely to grow.

So, while encouraging and praising DS11 to do for his brother, it's okay to get him to stand up for himself as well. He can say he recognizes that his brother is not a morning person, and he can help with skills that DS13 doesn't have and isn't likely to gain (maybe locker organization is one). But DS13 could do more - perhaps making the lunches at 4 PM or 9 PM - his own and his brother's - makes sense. That takes more off your plate in the morning and makes DS13 responsible for something else and someone else. Is it a quid pro quo? Probably - but isn't that what "family" means? It doesn't have to be about payback for DS11. Maybe it's taking on household responsibility (yours) and growing up and being more self-sufficient. Maybe doing his own laundry and his brother's makes sense, even if it's 3 big loads on a weekend. Not having his own clean clothes a couple of mornings isn't the worst thing in the world if it helps him learn and take on the responsibilities of an adult. He can certainly take on a task or two related to dinner (although I think you said they have dinner with their father a lot) - but still, doing the equivalent of his brother making him an extra piece of toast can certainly be done at times of the day that aren't the early morning hours. This is the age when they want all the privileges and none of the work - and I think it's negligent of us parents when we let them selectively be dependent children without demanding that they develop the skills they will need in a few short years. If you can find a way to make him see that this is a sign of his maturity and the harbinger of greater privileges to come, more power to ya!

But there's no option. And I think, if he wants to keep the perks of tea and medication help, he must find a way to give back to the family (not specifically his brother). You might come up with a list of 5-6 things and have him pick 2 that are HIS responsibility and HIS promise to others. That's the "price" of continuing to have a computer, a phone and a cup of tea.

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J.K.

answers from Wausau on

At this time, I don't see any flags that make me want to put you in the middle of the brothers. No one is being harmed and it sounds like neither boy is bothered.. If your 11 year old doesn't want to do something for the 13 year old, he won't. Your 13 year old may simply be benignly clueless and less socially mature.

What you can do is possibly make a few adjustments to how the household operates. My older son has ADD and because of that I structured his school day mornings from the start. The younger son naturally followed the same basic routine. At this point, their routine is so ingrained that it is almost auto-pilot. We do the same things, in the same order, every normal school day.

For example; wake up, eat breakfast, wash, dress, make lunch, etc. Some things are best done the night before, like having the backpacks ready at the door and showering in the evening. Streamline everything possible.

Kids with differences sometimes need care and supervision for longer than other kids their age. If your son is oversleeping, it means he still needs someone to wake him up on time. The rushing around issue should be resolved if you allow enough time and follow a set routine every day.

My older son is 17 now but he still has a bedtime because he needs it. He knows he does too. I bet your son doesn't like feeling rushed and cranky in the mornings either, but he isn't at a point of self-management yet.

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D..

answers from Miami on

Ah, JB, I'm sorry that the ghost of your husband still lives in your house. I know that I am always saying something snarky about your ex when you write. Sorry...

I do think that you MUST stop with the walking on eggshells around your son and make some demands on him before he decides that this is the way he's going to live his life and treat everyone in it.

I have a family member who was like this as a young adult. Absolutely miserable to be around. Don't enable this behavior. Really and truly. Expect better behavior. And don't let your younger son be bullied by his older brother. Terrible dynamics can come into play with stuff like this.

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